January 05, 2012

A New York Food Bank Sees Success With a Virtual Food Drive

Food drives are a popular activity for companies and community groups that take part in service projects. But they are often costly and inefficient for food banks, which often have to provide materials, plan pick-ups, and process the donations.

The Food Bank for New York City has found a way around that problem by moving its food drives online, allowing donors to shop in virtual grocery aisles, give cash donations, and even start their own food drives.

"Holding a virtual food drive doesn't add any cost to the Food Bank for New York City; it only helps provide food," said Dan Buckley, the food bank's senior online communications manager.

The concept isn't new to food banks, or even to the Food Bank for New York City, which has had a similar site for some time. But a redesign of the site last summer added features that made its online food drives more closely resemble the experience of online shopping. And the change has made a significant difference in how donors use the site.

The food bank has already seen a 120-percent increase in donations through the site this fiscal year, Mr. Buckley said, well surpassing its goal of 20 percent. That number is expected to grow, as the food bank's fiscal year ends in July 2012.

Much of the early growth has come through small donations.

FedEx, which regularly works with the food bank, offered a matching grant to the food bank if it raised $5,000 online. Mr. Buckley sent one e-mail, both to people who had given less than $100 to the food bank in the past year and those who had given nothing, and the response was immediate. The food bank met the goal within two-and-a-half hours and donors have given more than $10,000 through FedEx's page.

"The tool was really developed to provide a playful and engaging experience for people to give," Mr. Buckley says. "One of the big potentials that environment holds is to encourage giving by people who may not already be donors or food-bank supporters."

Part of the "engaging experience" is teaching donors, said Margarette Purvis, the food bank's chief executive. Every item displayed on the site is a product donors can easily understand: like three gallons of milk or 25 pounds of bell peppers. By dragging your mouse over an item, you learn more about how the food bank buys and distributes it.

"It provides something that everyone just collecting cans on their own could never do, because now you see the value—the real value." Ms. Purvis says.

Every donor to the site is noted in the food bank's database as well, so the organization can send future appeals and take other steps to build ties to people who have given, Mr. Buckley said.

The development of the updated site was paid for entirely by the grocery service Peapod by Stop & Shop. The food bank also sold a sponsorship for the grains and beans section of the site to the food companies Carolina Enriched Rice and Ronzoni.